After a tough Labor Day weekend in Minnesota, the mood is a bit dampened, but your Detroit Tigers still aren’t out of this thing. In fact, they are now just two games out of the American League wild card spot. Instead of the surging Toronto Blue Jays, the Tigers are now tasked with running down the floundering New York Yankees.
This is pretty fun.
So let’s just take a moment to reset the scene. The Tigers are two games behind the Yankees, who currently hold the final postseason berth. Another bottom dweller of late has also risen to challenge for a spot as the Baltimore Orioles stand a half game ahead of the Tigers as well. The Blue Jays and Yankees play nine more times this season. The hope is that the by-way-of-Buffalo Jays go on a run in those games, and the Tigers can pick up the pace faster than the Orioles can.
Meanwhile, the Tigers are in one of the tougher parts of their season as well and can’t afford to stumble further after going 1-4 in their five-game set against the Twins. The Tigers have played five of a 12 game stretch over 10 days. They’ll be home Tuesday and Wednesday to play a Milwaukee Brewers club that is probably tougher than their record, fly to St. Louis for a Thursday doubleheader with the Cardinals, and then head into Chicago for a tough three-game set with the division leading White Sox. If they gain any ground during the remainder of this stretch of games, we like their chances of making a push, but they certainly can’t afford to fall much further back.
Of course this is all gravy from here on out, but even a mediocre team can get hot for a couple of weeks. The clubs win expectancy aligns perfectly with their 18-21 record. They’ve earned their shot at a playoff chase. Expectations for the 2020 Tigers have already been exceeded, and painful as it might ultimately be, we get to enjoy our first meaningful stretch drive in four years. Buy the ticket, take the ride.
What are the chances?
Okay, so you won’t be surprised, but the projection systems don’t like the Tigers’ chances. FanGraphs has the Tigers going 9-13 the rest of the way. That seems pretty reasonable, but shut up FanGraphs, never tell us the odds.
The problem, all kidding aside, is that the nature of this odd short season makes it especially difficult to know what to trust and believe in after just six weeks of baseball. Normally we’d just be settling into our first solid impressions of a team at this point in a season. The compressed schedule has seemed to produce a greater rollercoaster of emotions about players than in many years. Perhaps it’s just that we have more reasons to care.
Three weeks ago, Jeimer Candelario looked like a looming DFA candidate. JaCoby Jones was still hitting. Spencer Turnbull was unhittable and Matt Boyd was a mess. The only constants offensively, as least in the plus column, have been Victor Reyes and Jonathan Schoop. In terms of pitching, a fairly deep group of arms in the bullpen have been the one consistent force keeping them in games. Beyond that, performance has swung pretty wildly, as it typically does for a young team full of players just trying to scratch out a place in the big leagues.
The kids are the key of course
Over the past few weeks, even as Reyes, Schoop, and Candelario have provided a lot of the offense, others have started chipping in a little more. Miguel Cabera still isn’t hitting for power but he’s been far more productive in getting on base and driving in runs. Jorge Bonifacio has provided some much needed help from the outfield. But the real impact has been made by young shortstop prospect Willi Castro.
How can they keep up their solid run production? There aren’t a lot of options if the guys getting it done falter. The catcher position has largely been a black hole offensively, particularly with Grayson Greiner in the lineup. Austin Romine’s batted ball luck has resolved itself, and the Tigers have shown zero interest in trying Jake Rogers or Eric Haase. Castro’s success has been helpful, but his enormous swinging strike rate and lack of discipline also begs for regression. Unless Travis Demeritte or Isaac Paredes gets it going real quickly, there probably isn’t much to be done.
The real weakness for the club this season has been it’s starting rotation. Only three clubs have a worse FIP, and only one has pitched fewer innings. Obviously the Tigers need Spencer Turnbull to settle down and give them a few more quality starts. They need Matt Boyd to continue to pitch well. But the hope has to settle on rookies Tarik Skubal and Casey Mize.
Skubal came through with a fine outing on Saturday against the Twins. Unfortunately, that performance was squandered in a loss. Casey Mize hasn’t displayed his best so far, showing lesser stuff and command than he typically features. We’ll have to hope he can get things squared away soon. If he and Skubal can just give the team more good outings than bad over the their final four starts, the Tigers will have their chances at a postseason spot.
That’s a bit of a tall order for two pitchers new to the league, and it would be unfair to put that pressure too much on their shoulders. However, whatever happens with the team, the opportunity to learn to perform under his kind of pressure is ultimately the most important element of this season. However it turns out, the experience should be very valuable.
The only other thing to be done, is to remove Michael Fulmer from the rotation. With much diminished stuff, Fulmer just can’t hang in there even through the three inning limit the Tigers have on him. His long-term future is important to the team, and his struggles aren’t abnormal for a pitcher returning from two serious surgeries, but they need to carefully consider whether their chances in these final weeks would be better served by starting Daniel Norris or Tyler Alexander now that they’re stretched out a bit.
With a doubleheader on Thursday, and no off days for almost a week, Alexander is presumably getting a start this week anyway. If it goes well, inserting him into the rotation and using Fulmer sparsely in short bullpen outings may be the only real option to improve the situation for a playoff push in the final two weeks of the season.
The bullpen could use the help. With Joe Jimenez lost on the mound, and Buck Farmer having a down year and possibly still a little banged up, carrying the team the final five or six innings in most games is untenable. The Tigers do have the advantage of the fine long relief provided by Norris and Alexander. Names like Kyle Funkhouser, John Schreiber, and Rony Garcia have chipped in a little bit as well, but they’ve still pitched the 10th most innings of any bullpen, despite playing fewer games than some teams. If the starters can just go a little deeper, the core of Jose Cisnero, Gregory Soto, and Bryan Garcia may be able to carry them into October.
Sure the smart money isn’t pouring into the Tigers right now. They may get a little assist from the returns of Niko Goodrum or Harold Castro, but really there’s no more help coming. But to be two games out of a playoff spot, with 19 games left to play, is a pretty cool hand for a team that came into the year looking like another last place finish may be in order.
If they can hang in there and maintain position through the weekend, a little run over the final two weeks may be all it takes to make this a pretty memorable season. Hopefully they’ve still got it in them.